You may know which classic Canadian dishes you like, but do you know the stories behind them? And how can we define Canadian cuisine if we don’t know its past? In Iconic Canadian Food, Gabby Peyton shares the back stories of a smorgasbord of iconic Canadian dishes. Today she tackles the history of Canada's other black gold - molasses.
Editor's Note: this post is sponsored by Crosby's Molasses.
Every cupboard in Atlantic Canada has one. That sticky-bottomed milk carton of black gold we all know and love: molasses!
The Other Black Gold
In Newfoundland, it’s probably cemented to a plate on the dinner table waiting to be impatiently poured over fresh toutons. In Nova Scotia or PEI you might find it in brown bread and in New Brunswick it's baked beans. But most commonly was it's place on the dinner table in Atlantic Canada as a condiment to be poured over bread or biscuits.
Molasses has served as the main sweetener component in Atlantic Canada for more than two hundred years and no matter where you are in the region, there’s one thing in common: it’s always Crosby’s molasses. I didn’t even know another type of molasses existed until I moved to Ontario in my mid-twenties (and I still bought Crosby’s because what else is there?).
Molasses has its own lexicon — blackstrap and fancy — that advertises the sweet syrup’s quality. The best is, of course, fancy molasses, and it’s so fancy it includes the adjective in its uniquely Canadian name.
Here is the history of Crosby Molasses.
Molasses, also known as treacle in Britain, is a natural sweetener which comes from mature sugar cane and is actually the definitive component of brown sugar. The juice of the sugar cane is extracted and then evaporated to make molasses.
So, what makes fancy molasses fancy? Other than the fact that only a few factories in the world still make fancy molasses, it’s not a by-product of the sugar refining process and is made in sugar mills, while its darker, stickier sister, blackstrap molasses, which is made in sugar refineries.
The Sticky Bit of Molasses History
Molasses started being imported to Canada and the United States more than 200 years ago from the Caribbean for use as a sweetener for baking and rum.
It became such a hot commodity in the first half of the 17th century that the Molasses Act of 1733 was enacted, imposing heavy duties on molasses to U.S. colonists (which was widely ignored). Until the 1880s it was the most popular and easily accessible sweetener in North America.
For generations, molasses was the major sweetener along the eastern seaboard as ships sailed up from the Caribbean along the north-south trading route, so inevitably Atlantic Canadians started incorporating molasses into their baking and it became entrenched in our culinary history. Baked beans, molasses bread and molasses cookies dominate the cookbooks of the region.
Crosby Molasses Sweet Success
In the late 1870s Lorenzo George Crosby, the founder of the Crosby’s dynasty, set up a grocery company in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia at the age of 20. He established his import/export business in 1879 by trading local fish and lumber for fancy molasses from the Caribbean.
By 1897 Crosby’s sweet success was growing and he moved operations to Nelson Street in Saint John, New Brunswick. By 1911 Crosby's had moved to a bigger manufacturing plant on Rothesay Avenue, where the company remains to this day.
The Future is Sticky!
Five generations later, Crosby’s is still owned by the same family. President James Crosby took on the leadership role in 2016 and continues to process and package the same molasses products: both fancy and blackstrap molasses along with cooking molasses.
These days, all the fancy molasses coming into Crosby’s plants originates from a single source, the Tiera Madra sugar mill in Santa Lucia, Guatemala, which is unrefined and non-GMO verified. The blackstrap molasses is a blend of blackstrap from a handful of sources in the region.
While the comfort foods like baked beans, cookies and breads dominate the molasses recipes compendium in Atlantic Canada, Crosby’s fancy molasses has made its way into trendier recipes like cured salmon, barbecue dishes and even cocktails. What was once a pantry staple has become a high-end desirable ingredient, and one thing is for sure, that black gold isn’t going anywhere.
Touring Crosby's Molasses
As part of the FBC2018 Great Canadian Road Trip we had the opportunity to tour the Crosby Molasses plant in Saint John with President James Crosby. Check out the video for some highlights of our visit!
- The FBC Guide To Natural Sweeteners
- Kitchen Geekery: What You Need to Know About Brown Sugar
- Over 40 Creative Gingerbread Recipes
Gabby Peyton is based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and blogs at The Food Girl in Town. She’s a culinary adventurer and freelance writer, focusing on travel, food and drink writing with a dash of historical work. You can follow Gabby on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.